Constitutional Crisis In The States

Church-State Separation Provisions Under Fire

Church-State Separation Provisions Under Fire

About three-fourths of the states have constitutions explicitly banning tax aid to religious schools and other sectarian institutions.

These “no-aid” provisions are a huge obstacle to those who seek public support for private religious education. Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Ohio voucher funding scheme in 2002, some state courts have stuck down church school aid, citing the “no-aid” language.

The response of voucher proponents has been to try to rewrite the state constitutions and remove these provisions. Such an attempt is currently under way in Florida and has also been tried recently in Georgia.

These drives must be strongly opposed. State constitutional provisions are going to be an important part of our defense of church-state separation in the years to come. With the Supreme Court growing lax on upholding the church-state wall, we’re going to be increasingly relying on state language.

Recently, a group of citizens in Kentucky, including Americans United President Paul Simmons, used a provision in the Kentucky Constitution to win a court ruling blocking tax funding of a Baptist college with discriminatory admissions policies.

Some religious lobbies are furious. State constitutional language barring public aid to religious institutions, they say, is an example of bigotry.

They’re wrong. The language grew out of longstanding concerns in this country that no one should be taxed to pay for someone else’s religion. We tend to forget how much founders like James Madison were concerned about this issue.

Madison, writing at a time when church taxes were common, eloquently explained why coerced support for religion was wrong. In Madison’s view, it was inappropriate to force a person to contribute even “three pence” to the support of religion.

Not surprisingly, lots of others shared that view. Their concerns are reflected in many of our state constitutions. The fact that so many states have language like this in their governing documents is a good indication of how widespread this concern was.

Nor is this language aimed at any specific religious group. Occasionally the claim is made that these provisions are anti-Catholic and were designed to keep tax funds out of the hands of Catholic schools.

Wrong again. The language in many states pre-dates the rise of the Catholic school system, and it often appears in states that do not now have and never have had substantial Catholic populations. Furthermore, the language treats all religions the same. Thus, these provisions are no more “anti-Catholic” than they are “anti-Baptist,” “anti-Methodist” or “anti-Hindu.”

Opponents of church-state separation are hard at work trying to scrub these important protections from our state constitutions. We must not let them succeed.